Translation and The Language of Thought

Language of Thought

You’ve probably heard the question, “What language do you think in?” If you are bilingual, you often “think” in your mother tongue and translate your knowledge into a secondary language. Yet, several philosophers have disputed the idea that a person who speaks Spanish thinks in Spanish or that somebody who speaks in English thinks in English.

These philosophers look to infants that do not know a language and are still born with the ability to think. They do not think “in” any language but rather learn to interpret signals as they develop a language.

The idea is that we don’t necessarily “think in” a certain language, but we learn to process our thoughts in that language. The distinction is subtle, but it is still important.

In the world of translation, the idea of thinking and language is an important one. After all, if you are going to translate a document into another language, you want your audience to understand not just the words that are written, but the intended meaning behind them.

Linguistics and Perception

Lera Boroditsky is an expert on languages and thought. She is an assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and symbolic systems at Stanford University. In one of her interview, she gave this fascinating example of how a simple sentence can be viewed through many languages. She asked, “Suppose you want to say something so simple as, “Bush read Chomsky’s latest book.” Consider the issues based on the language you speak:

  • In English we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we have to pronounce it like “red” and not like “reed.”
  • In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can’t) alter the verb to mark tense.
  • In Russian, you would have to alter the verb to indicate tense and gender. So, if it was Laura Bush who did the reading, you’d use a different form of the verb than if it was George. In Russian, you’d also have to include-in the verb information about completion. If George read only part of the book, you’d use a different form of the verb than if he’d diligently plowed through the whole thing.
  • In Turkish you’d have to include in the verb how you acquired this information: if you had witnessed this unlikely event with your own two eyes, you’d use one verb form, but if you had simply read or heard about it, or inferred it from something Bush said, you’d use a different verb form.

In Boroditsky’s example, we see that people pay attention to different details based on their language. Some focus on time and space, others on gender, some on the physical world surrounding the act, and so on. What this means for writers and translators is that if you want your message to be understood by the target audience, you need to include the information they need to understand it.

Language and Belief

If I can’t say it, can I believe it? If I believe it, do I need a word for that belief?

Studies are finding out that when there are no words for a concept in a language, people have a very hard time believing the truthfulness of thoughts associated with those concepts and may not be able to perform tasks which require that information.

Language is so much a part of who we are that it can actually shape the way we think and act. To have a word for something makes it believable, but the absence of the word makes it almost impossible to act upon.

Behavioral economist Keith Chen, notes that language structure can even impact your ability to save, increase wealth, and maximize business. He notes that a simple sentence like “It rain tomorrow,” versus “It will rain tomorrow” makes a difference in how we perceive time. Perception of time changes the way we view the world.

If you want to maximize the information you are presenting in a business or academic environment, be very specific in your description of concepts that may not be part of the target language or the target language culture.

Consider the sentence, “The rat ate the cheese”. The immediate feeling of most people in the west is going to be negative because rats are viewed as dirty, diseased creatures. The view of the rat is not so negative in China.

The lesson for authors and translators is to remember that word choice used to explain our idioms, metaphors, and examples will have an emotional impact on the target audience and it may be different than the one we would expect.

The great take-away from this information is that if you want your target audience to fully grasp the concepts you are having translated, you need to choose your words and examples carefully.

From gender issues to colors, from iconography to food and taste, and from religion to politics, your message will often be impacted by the ability of your reader to understand your point based upon their notion of how things are and ought to be. Words create pictures; make sure you create the right ones.

This post is written by Robert Stitt, a content writer with Ulatus.

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